SOCHI, Russia — Ignore the noncommittal comments made by the leaders of the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association at Tuesday’s press conference, and ignore the doomsday talk that this will be the last Olympics with NHL players.
It could be the last. The NHL owners don’t like interrupting their season to send their high-priced assets to someone else’s tournament every four years, especially when it’s outside of North America. They don’t see tangible benefits to their business – no bump in ticket sales, no bump in TV ratings. They risk their star players suffering injuries or wearing down just before the stretch run. That hasn’t changed.
A lot has changed in Sochi, though, including the general feeling among hockey people about the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Many arrived thinking the chances were slim the NHL would return to the Olympics. Now, halfway through the men’s hockey tournament, many think the chances are much better.
You aren’t going to hear that from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly or NHLPA executive director Don Fehr. These are lawyers. These are professional negotiators. They don’t make statements before the right time and don’t tip their hands to each other, let alone the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee. The owners use non-participation as leverage over the players, and both use it as leverage over the IIHF and the IOC.
Don’t lose sight of a pretty important fact: The NHL is here. The owners made all the same arguments against Olympic participation four years ago after Vancouver, and still the NHL came to Sochi. “Obviously the reason we’re here is because given all the pros and cons, we made a determination that on balance it was more positive to be here than negative,” Daly said.
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The NHL and the NHLPA won concessions from the IIHF and the IOC. Their travel costs are covered. Their insurance costs are covered – no small thing when you’re talking about almost 150 players with guaranteed contracts worth millions of dollars. The NHL’s media arms have access to the players, and the league has the ability to use Olympic content.
So far, so good. Charter jets flew NHL players, families and officials non-stop from North America to Russia, and there are detailed plans to get everyone home as painlessly as possible. There have been injury issues – like the Detroit Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg aggravating his chronic back problem playing for Sweden – but nothing out of the ordinary. NHL Network has put microphones on players for its behind-the-scenes show "NHL Revealed," and NHL.com has had reporters in the privileged rightsholders’ interview areas, gathering quotes and generating clicks.
In the big picture, the exposure of the sport should be good for the NHL at home and abroad. The United States-Russia game was a classic, and it minted a new American hero, T.J. Oshie, who made appearances on shows from “Today” to “Tonight.” Slovenia surprised everyone by making the quarterfinals. Maybe that produces another Anze Kopitar in the future.
“So far the tournament’s been fantastic, and everything we were promised has been delivered on five-fold,” Daly said. “So I think from a logistical perspective, all the things and all the building blocks we’ve put in place have worked very, very well.”
It should get even better. There is an excellent chance the United States and Canada will meet in the semifinals. That not only would mean a riveting semi, but it would guarantee a North American team in the final and another in the bronze medal game. That would make NBC and CBC happy, and NBC and CBC are NHL TV partners.
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It remains to be seen who will carry the 2018 Olympics, and that will be among the factors when the owners weigh the pros and cons again and determine whether on balance it would be more positive than negative to go to Pyeongchang. But in the end, the players will always be the ones who drive Olympic participation.
“None of this moves forward at all – if it moves forward at all – if the players don’t want to play,” Bettman said. “The reason we’re here in the first instance is because this is a game with a history and tradition of international competition, and our players, NHL players, love representing their countries. And so if the players ever said, ‘We’re not interested,’ we’re not going to ever force them to go.”
Before Sochi, you couldn’t find a single player who didn’t want to play in the Olympics, even though some were so concerned about security or comfort that they left their families at home. Now, not only can’t you find a single player who doesn’t want to play in the Olympics, you can’t find one who isn’t raving about the experience. Some have even looked into flying in family and friends for the medal round. They can fly commercial on one-way tickets and hitch a ride home on the cushy charter.
The players didn’t mind the trip. They feel safe. They like living in the Olympic Village with a view of the Black Sea. They like biking to the dining hall or walking to the rink. They like meeting athletes from other events and competing for their countries on the biggest stage in world-class venues. Fehr – a former member of the USOC board, remember – said he often hears complaints in his job, but he has heard none here.
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“Everyone on the team kind of agreed that things were made out to be a lot worse than they were,” said Team Canada center Ryan Getzlaf, who left his family at home. “I think everyone was pretty pleasantly surprised when we got here on how well things have been put together. The venues are unbelievable. The families that are here have had a great time. They’ve done a great job accommodating everybody. I think we’ve been pretty thrilled with everything.”
Fehr will gauge his constituents’ feelings after the Olympics. At least at this point, does all this help the cause for 2018? Will this ensure the players will fight to be in Pyeongchang?
“I think so,” said Team Canada defenseman Duncan Keith.
The NHL and the NHLPA are working on staging a World Cup in September 2015. They would split the money instead of letting somebody else profit off their product. But the World Cup isn’t necessarily tied to the Olympics, and it wouldn’t be the same, and they know it. If the players push to come back to the Olympics – and the owners aren’t footing the bill and at least see the NHL promoted – Pyeongchang is a realistic possibility.
Expect some more hard negotiating first, though.
“I love to bargain with these people,” said Rene Fasel, the president of the IIHF, sitting between Fehr and Bettman and smiling. “It’s fun to do that after every Olympics. It would be boring if we decide the next 10 years or 20 years that we have NHL. It’s so nice to be with Gary and fight in New York and have some discussions. And with the players I am so pleased, because the players, they want to go. There is nothing like an Olympic gold medal in the life of an athlete. Nothing.”
“Except perhaps winning the Stanley Cup,” Bettman said.
You know what? Both are pretty good.
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